Recently, a reader told me via email that “simplicity has gone mainstream,” so there is no need to discuss the topic. I don’t agree with that assertion. Sure, the topic of downsizing and stuff is addressed in the media. But that message is usually viewed as “extreme” and typically flanked by commercials prompting you to buy more stuff. The majority of people, corporations, and the government aren’t proponents of “simple living.” All you have to do is look at our economic model to see that isn’t the case. At the policy level, we’re more obsessed with growth, rather than well-being. Put another way, our culture is so focused on “more” we never ask: “what is enough?”
And that’s why it’s important to keep talking about stuff. For the sake of our health and the future of our planet, we’ve got to rethink our model of “more is better.”
Let's examine two problem areas, advertising and waste:
Advertising is part of our cultural identity. In Branded Nation, James Twitchell says, "Much of our shared knowledge about ourselves and our culture comes to us through a commercial process of storytelling called branding.”
Advertising has bombarded people with so many messages about products that “ten percent of a two-year-old’s nouns are brand names.” No wonder so many Americans are depressed and in debt. From an early age, we’re taught that stuff will make us happy. But happiness research shows us that’s not the case. Our human needs for community and strong personal relationships can’t be bought.
Richard Layard, an economist, talks about this issue in his book, Happiness. He says, “The current pursuit of self-realization will not work. If your sole duty is to achieve the best for yourself, life becomes just too stressful, too lonely – you are set up to fail.” He goes onto say that it is “a deep fallacy of many economists to think of human interaction as mainly a means to an end, rather than also an end in itself.”
Second, analyzing consumption and waste at both the individual and societal level is important because our landfills are overflowing with consumer waste, leaching toxins into the landbase.
Let’s take a look at a few statistics, from The Story of Stuff.
- Industries (like steel, glass, concrete, food processing, textiles, plastics, chemical manufacturing, and water treatment, etc.) waste prolifically. These industries generate between 7.6 to 13 billion tons of waste per year.
- Each day in the United States, we use more than 150 million single-use containers for beverages, plus another 320 million takeout cups.
- About 400 million electronic products are chucked in the United States each year. In 2005, it amounted to 4 billion pounds of e-waste . . . And rather than segregating and handling it carefully and responsibly, we still dump 85 percent of our e-waste in landfills.
- The Basel Action Network revealed that about 80 percent of e-waste is exported overseas to developing countries, where much is simply dumped.
These statistics show the urgent need for real policy solutions, particularly, when it comes to the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of stuff. And as Layard argues, we need to consider the issue of well-being and community building, not just the constant accumulation of stuff. The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. We have enough, yet we aren’t happy because we still want more.
One of my favorite writers, Derrick Jensen, says that writing alone won’t change the world. And he’s right on target. Writing is one way to shift perspectives. But any type of long-term change must be paired with activism and that’s a good thing because helping others makes people happy. However, becoming active requires getting off couch and disconnecting from screens.
Note: Statistics are from The Story of Stuff